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Salmonella From Raw Tomatoes Has Sickened Thousands, Still a Serious Threat

Sep 7, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP, LLP

Raw tomatoes could have caused as many as 79,000 cases of Salmonella poisoning since1990.   That disturbing conclusion comes from an analysis conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) of 12 multi-state Salmonella outbreaks associated with raw tomatoes reported to the agency since 1990.  Now the CDC is warning consumers to take precautions to protect themselves from the deadly food-borne bacteria.

The CDC analysis found that those 12 tomato Salmonella outbreaks were linked to a total of 1900 confirmed illnesses.   But because more than 97-percent of all Salmonella infections are not confirmed by lab tests, the CDC estimates that the true number is closer to 79,000.   Four of the 12 Salmonella incidents were traced to fresh tomatoes served by restaurants.  The restaurant outbreaks resulted in 459 confirmed Salmonella cases in 21 states between 2005 and 2006.  Unfortunately, the CDC was only able to definitively determine the source of one of those restaurant-related outbreaks.   That incident occurred from July to November 2005, and sickened at least 72 people in 16 states. The illnesses were all traced to restaurant tomatoes grown on two farms in Eastern Virginia, where the outbreak Salmonella strain was found in irrigation pond water near the tomato fields.   In the other three restaurant Salmonella outbreaks, the CDC was unable to pinpoint exactly where the tomatoes became contaminated.  However, because these Salmonella outbreaks spanned so many states, the CDC has concluded that the bacterial contamination occurred early in the distribution chain, either at farms or packing facilities, rather than at the restaurants themselves.   

While raw tomatoes are an ideal vehicle for transferring Salmonella bacteria, the CDC says that there are steps consumers can take to protect themselves from illness.  Cutting tomatoes can transfer Salmonella from the skin to the tomato’s flesh, and cut tomatoes make an ideal environment for bacteria to thrive.  For that reason, peeled, cut or cooked tomatoes should be refrigerated within two hours to inhibit bacterial growth. Tomatoes that have been left out longer than two hours should be thrown away.   Bruised or damaged tomatoes should be avoided, and all tomatoes must be washed thoroughly right before they are eaten.   Also cut tomatoes should be kept away from raw, unwashed produce, raw meats and raw seafood.

Salmonella is a potentially deadly type of food poisoning, symptoms of which included fever, abdominal pain, nausea, gas and bloody diarrhea.  Symptoms appear within 36 hours of exposure, and usually last four to seven days.  In very severe cases, Salmonella can lead to kidney failure and other complications.  Salmonella can be particularly dangerous for children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems.  Some victims of Salmonella will develop a disease called Reiter’s Syndrome, a difficult- to- treat condition that causes severe joint pain, irritation of the eyes, and painful urination.  Reiter’s Syndrome can plague its victims for months or years, and can lead to chronic arthritis. In addition to tomatoes, Salmonella outbreaks have been linked to contaminated peanut butter, pet food, snack mix and other produce.


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